Sermon preached on Matthew 5:27-32 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 4/27/2014 in Novato, CA.
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Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Adultery in the Heart
As we’ve been going through the Sermon on the Mount, we’ve been seeing Jesus critique the failing righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. In their legalism, they had lowered the demands of God’s laws. Jesus has been working through six examples of this, and here we come to two more of them, both connected with the seventh commandment. The seventh commandment of course forbids adultery: “You shall not commit adultery.” As we will see in today’s message, this is not a narrow command only dealing with physical fidelity within marriage. It is that, and more. It’s about complete sexual purity, and that means our sexuality is to be expressed within the bounds of biblical marriage.
I hope you can immediately recognize that this especially speaks to the ethical issues of our day and culture. There have been times and places where the church has had to especially live as salt and light in a world around them that practiced rather very overt sexual immorality. I think of the early church in Corinth. That was particularly an issue for them. Their city was infamous for their sexual immorality and Paul had to call the members of that church to God’s standard, not the standard of their culture. Read 1 and 2 Corinthians for that. Well, this then is a somewhat similar challenge for us today. We are increasingly seeing a pagan approach to sexuality in our culture. Christians in the church have not been left untouched by this. Pornography, divorce without biblical grounds, sex outside of marriage, cohabitation, homosexuality, and adultery are rampant in our culture and far too present among claiming to follow Christ. We’ve learned so far in the Sermon on the Mount that such failures of righteousness should lead us to the cross of Jesus Christ. We need to look to him as Lord and Savior. He offers forgiveness and grace even for people who have committed such sins. But what comes along with that salvation is a new identity. We are to be transformed from sinners to saints. That’s a work he begins in this life, to make us people who think about righteousness like he thinks about it, and to strive for such in our lives. That includes then with regard to sexual purity. And so as Christians forgiven even of our struggles with sexual sins, we come to learn from Christ about his standard for righteousness in this area.
So then, I’d like to begin to observe what Jesus’ understanding of the 7th commandment is here. We see the seventh commandment referenced by Jesus in verse 27. As we’ve said in previous sermons, it seems in this chapter he is addressing the ways the Pharisees emphasized only the bare letter of the law and missed the spirit of it. That seems to be the case again today. Jesus is saying that it’s not just the letter of the law here. Adultery in its most specific sense is when you have intimate relations with someone else’s legal spouse. That’s the most narrow definition of it. And so if the Pharisees thought they could just avoid that, and they would be keeping the law, then they missed the spirit of the law. Jesus gives two examples in this passage about how to break the seventh commandment beyond the bare letter of the law.
First, is through the lust of the eye. This is verse 28. You don’t have to come into physical contact with the woman to commit adultery with her. You can just look at the woman and lust within your heart, and you have broken the commandment within your heart. This can go both ways, by the way; it’s not just something a man can do, but a woman also. Well, if that was an issue back then, it’s still an issue today. Too often you can hear men especially say something like “Well, it’s okay as long as I just look. I can look, but not touch.” In other words, what they are really saying is that they can lust if they just don’t act out physically that lust. Now, that may be the standard they are okay with. It might even be the ethical standard that their own wife is okay with. But Jesus is not okay with that standard. That’s not the perfect righteousness that he calls his followers to. And again to clarify, this is something that both men and women can fail in.
The second example of how to break the seventh commandment beyond the bare letter of the law is through unbiblical divorce and remarriage. This is what we see in verses 31-32. Jesus criticizes the attitude of the day that basically made divorce and remarriage easy — just issue a certificate of divorce, and you are free of your marital commitment. But Jesus’ point is that marriage is for life, and only sexual immorality is grounds for you to divorce your spouse. So the idea is basically something like this: If you divorce your spouse anyways, without such biblical grounds, and then they get remarried, well, then that’s basically them committing adultery with their new husband, because they really should still be married to you. We will talk more about that in next week’s sermon.
So these are two examples of how Jesus sees the wider understanding and application of the seventh commandment. I’m saying that these are examples, because there are many more ways you can engage in sexual immorality. The Old and New Testaments both address various forms of sexual immorality. But this teaching of Jesus calls us to sexual purity not only in our actions, but also in our thoughts and in our heart. And it calls for us to express our sexuality within the venue given by God, in other words, marriage between a man and a woman in a lifelong commitment of fidelity to each other.
You see, it seems that they wanted to do back then, what our society is still trying to do. Apparently the scribes and Pharisees were lessening the ways you could break the seventh commandment. They were taking things that Jesus says were sin and not counting that as sin. But that is what our culture is doing today, and particularly for our culture today it seems it is being driven more and more by the secular, godless, nature of our society. And so nowadays you have in our society easy divorces. Even over physical adultery where someone has violated their legal marriage contract, there is little or no recourse available for the injured party. Pornography has become a business. Living together and hooking up outside of marriage is considered the norm. Homosexuality is quickly becoming the same. The culture is basically taking one aspect of sexual purity after another and saying that what used to be called a sin or taboo, is no longer a sin or taboo, so go for it.
So that is a little on Jesus’ understanding of the seventh commandment. What I’d like to consider next is to recognize for a moment how Jesus’ understanding shows the interconnectedness of the Ten Commandments, and really all of righteousness. You see, what’s interesting, when Jesus mentions the lust of the eye, and committing adultery in the heart, we should not only think of the seventh commandment, but also of the tenth command. Thou shall not covet. It even explicitly mentions there about not coveting your neighbor’s wife. And so as Jesus says what he says here, you can think of how both commandments are in view. Of course, you can go further. To take someone else’s wife, is essentially stealing from them. You shall not steal is the eighth commandment. And you probably don’t tell them that you are doing it, so you are keeping a lie up, which is a breaking of the ninth commandment prohibiting false witness. And as Jesus said, the ways we injure or hurt our neighbor falls under the subject of the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder.” Of course all such violations are disobeying God, and setting yourself as the one in charge, and per the first commandment you aren’t supposed to have any other gods before God.
Do you see my point? Righteousness is a holistic thing. The commands are interrelated. Paul gives a similar example in Colossians 3:5 when he says that covetousness is idolatry — in other words you covet something so much, that it becomes an idol of your heart — it becomes your false god. And so in the same way, this is why Jesus can elsewhere summarize righteousness with two basic commands: Love the Lord you God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself. Righteousness is a holistic thing. The commands are interconnected. And today’s passage then tells us this in terms of our sexual purity and marriage obligations. Christ’s view on our sexuality is one that calls for a complete purity in all ways with all of our selves. Christ teaches that here, and it’s the teaching of the Bible as a whole.
In our last main point, I’d like to turn now and see how Jesus paints the seriousness of this sin in verses 29-30. Look there with me. In light of this subject of committing adultery by looking at a woman and lusting after her in your heart, Jesus gives these words. He says it’s better to cut out your right eye or your right hand if they are causing you to sin. Better that, than your whole body be cast into hell. What is Jesus getting at here? Does he really want us to actually cut off our physical body parts?
Well, let me say right now, I don’t think people should cut off any body parts in light of Jesus’ teaching here. But let me explain the verses and hopefully that will clarify why I am saying that. I don’t want you to think I’m just conveniently ignoring what Jesus is saying here, or just simply spiritualizing it. Let me start by noting three points about this teaching by Jesus. First, it shows how serious sin is, that you would want to remove whatever is the cause, even something of such tremendous value like a body part. We need to hate sin that much! Second, it shows that we need to recognize the priority and value of one thing over another. Jesus says it’s better to lose one body part for this short life, than for eternity to lose your whole body to hell. And yet that’s not the full risk, is it? Jesus elsewhere warns us that God can throw not just our bodies but even our souls into hell, Matthew 10:28. There is a truth here that we should recognize the priority to keep out of hell, whatever it takes, over any other thing we would give up in this life.
Third, and most importantly, if we really could keep ourselves out of hell this way, then okay. When Jesus mentions plucking out your right eye, you immediately think of what he just said about lusting at a woman with your eye. So is that the solution? If that eye causes you to sin, you just pluck it out? Well, when you do that, won’t you have another eye? Will you pluck that one out then too? And he mentions the hand. Maybe this makes you think of stealing. Maybe even like stealing someone’s wife. If you try to steal with your right hand, and so you cut it off, will you not try to steal with your left hand after that? And if you have then cut off both your eyes and both your hands, will that stop your mouth from still soliciting an adultery? So if you cut out your tongue, will that stop your mind from fantasying over that lust?
Do you see the problem? You could cut keep cutting off more and more body parts and that wouldn’t solve the problem. Why? Because they aren’t the cause. Because those physical body parts aren’t the cause. Jesus says to cut those things off if they cause you to stumble, but they really aren’t the cause, are they? Otherwise the problem would be stopped when you cut them off. No, the problem goes much deeper. It’s what Jesus said right from the start in verse 28. Your eye is but the instrument you use to sin from the heart. But the sin doesn’t start from outside you and enter into you by your eye. Nor is the eye the source or cause of the sin. It’s the heart. The eye and the hand are merely obeying you from your heart. And the Bible says in Jeremiah 17:9 that the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.
So then, why not just cut out your heart and throw that away, so you don’t end up in hell? Oh wait. Our heart is who we are. If we could cut off the inner man and throw it away we would not be left with anything worth saving. Do you see then the real issue? Do you see how true Jesus’ words are here in verses 29-30, but how they point you beyond them to the problem with your heart? You know when you hear about people’s struggles with sexual sins, too often you hear people say that they just can’t stop themselves. That the thing God forbids just seems too natural. That they believe they are born that way, or that it is inherent to who they are. Well, Jesus’ teaching here seems to acknowledge a truth there. The cause of people’s sin is in their heart. At their core. It’s who they are. It’s who we all are apart from Christ’s work in our hearts. We’re sinners. We’re evil people, as it says in chapter 7, verse 11, in this sermon.
Will we then suffer the hell repeatedly mentioned here? Will we suffer in this gehenna fire, body and soul, for eternity? Isn’t that the concern? That such a place is so horrible, that we must do whatever we can to get out of it? And as we’ve said, we can’t just give up a hand or eye to keep out of it. That’s not the way of escape. And so, Jesus wants you to understand that this is what we’ve all earned. Unless we find a way of escape, that horrendous punishment of hell is in store for each of us.
But, praise be the Lord that there is a way of escape. Jesus Christ was cut off for our sake. He took on that punishment in our place. As the God-man, he was able to experience and endure the fire of hell on the cross, in our place. So that our debt would be fully, completely, satisfied. Repent of yours and believe in him, and you will be saved.
So then, brothers and sisters, for those who have hoped in the Lord, see Jesus’ passion for sexual purity. Know that this is what he will then be cultivating inside you as his forgiven saint. How then can we act in line with his transforming work in our hearts? How can we acknowledge that he cleanses our hearts? Well, for us who have that hope, we seek to purify our hearts, knowing that he is purifying our heart.
The biblical way to act in such a way is often referred to as mortification. It’s about putting to death that sin within you. And this is where we then take another application from this passage’s idea of cutting off our hand and our eye. Since our sin is caused from the heart, and not our physical body, we look to that remaining corruption in our souls and look to cut it out of us. By the grace of God, and by the power of the Spirit, and with the lenses of the Scriptures, we examine ourselves and seek to put off those things in our core that lust after that which we should not desire.
So then, do not feed the flesh. If there is something that fuels your lusts from the heart, don’t indulge it. Flee it. Rather, restrain the flesh. Do that by watching yourself over your temptations and praying for strength. Keep in mind the price that was paid for your salvation. You were bought with a price, therefore glorify God in your body.
I’ll end with one last point of application. Again today we mentioned numerous common ways that we can break the heart of the seventh commandment. And yet, I think that it would still be too easy for many to look at those list of more overt sins and think you are okay because you haven’t broken those specific things. But that betrays the very point of this passage. Don’t justify yourself before God by your own works. Look deeper then into your soul for the ways you do fail in terms of sexual purity and righteousness in general. Go back again to the cross and look to him for his purifying work in your heart. Rejoice as you see him at work in such ways; even today by the power of his Word pressing home right now in our lives. And become all the more excited that our future holds not the fires of gehenna, but that time of glory when he will finish his work in our hearts and bring us into our eternal rest with him. Praise be to God! Amen.
Copyright © 2014 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.